OBEDIENCE TO AUTHORITY
6. Further Variations and Controls
After the proximity series was completed, the experiment was moved out of the elegant Yale Interaction Laboratory to more modest quarters in the basement of the same building. The new laboratory was functional but somewhat plain, with bare steam- pipes running along the ceiling, and a concrete door, instead of the posh rugs and drapes of the former locale. I wondered whether the less impressive quarters would lead to a lesser level of obedience. In any case it was necessary to establish a new baseline condition. It was modeled on the Voice-Feedback condition, with a slight alteration. The learner would not merely respond with cries of anguish, but would introduce remarks about a heart problem. Perhaps this new element would provide additional justification for disobeying and make such a course of action seem even more compelling and necessary.
I did not wish to make the ďheart problemĒ so serious that it would disqualify the learner from participation but merely to raise a suggestion of a problem. This was achieved through remarks made by the victim at the time he was being strapped into the electric chair. The experimenter and naive subject (who has assisted strapping the learner into the chair) are about to leave the learner and return to the control room. The experimenter routinely asks, ďAny questions?Ē The learner responds somewhat diffidently, ďWhen I was at the Westhaven V.A. Hospital, a few years ago, they detected a slight heart condition. Nothing serious, but are these shocks dangerous?"
The experimenter replies in a confident, somewhat dismissive tone that although the shocks may be painful, they cause no permanent tissue damage, and then proceeds with the experimental routines.
The new series of protests, which was to serve as a standard for all subsequent experiments, paralleled the first set, with the exception that reference is made to the learnerís heart condition at 150, 195, and 330 volts. The exact schedule of protests is as follows:
Neither the less elegant laboratory nor the mention of a heart condition leads to greater disobedience. Twenty-six of the 40 subjects continued to the end in the present condition, compared with 25 out of 40 in the Voice-Feedback condition, merely a slight chance variation. The distribution of break-off points is shown in Table 3.
Probably there is nothing the victim can say that will uniformly generate disobedience; for the teacherís actions are not controlled by him.
In the post experimental interview subjects were asked, ďWhat is the maximum sample shock you would be willing to accept?Ē The data are available for 39 subjects in this condition and are shown in Figure 9. Three defiant subjects would accept shocks more powerful than they had administered. Of the 26 obedient subjects, 7 were willing to sample the 450-volt shock they had just administered, while 19 were not. In most cases there is a marked discrepancy between the shock the subject administered and the level he would be willing to accept as a sample. Thus three lowest dots in the extreme right side of the graph represent three subjects who administered 450 volts but would not be willing to sample more than 45 volts. Similar and even more extreme results are found in all experimental conditions when this question was asked.
Fig. 9. Maximum shock subject would accept as a function o shock administered.
Is it possible that the subjects respond principally to the personalities of the experimenter and victim? Perhaps the experimenter came across as a more forceful person than the victim, and the subject allied himself with the more impressive personality. The following experimental comparison came about inadvertently, but it can shed some light on this point. In order to speed up the running of the experiment, we had set up a second team, consisting of a new experimenter and a new victim. In the first team the experimenter was a somewhat dry, hard, technical-looking man. The victim in contrast was soft, avuncular, and innocuous. These personal characteristics were more or less reversed in the second team. The new experimenter was rather soft and unaggressive. The alternate victim, in contrast, was played by a man possessing a hard bony face and prognothic jaw, who looked as if he would do well in a scrap. The results, shown in Table 3, indicate that the change in personnel had little effect on the level of obedience. The personal characteristics of the experimenter and victim were not of overriding importance.
We saw in the proximity experiments that the spatial relationship between subject and victim affected the level of obedience. Would not the relationship of subject to experimenter also play a part?
There are reasons to feel that, on arrival, the subjects were oriented primarily to the experimenter rather than to the victim. They had come to the laboratory to fit into the structure that the experimenter -- not the victim -- would provide. They had come less to understand the behavior than to reveal that behavior to a competent scientist, and they were willing to display themselves as the scientistís purposes required. Most subjects seemed quite concerned about the appearance they were making before the experimenter, and one could argue that this preoccupation in a relatively new and strange setting made the subjects somewhat insensitive to the triadic nature of the social situation. The subjects were so concerned about the show they were putting on for the experimenter that influences from other parts of the social field did not receive much weight. This powerful orientation to the experimenter would account for the relative insensitivity of the subject to the victim and would also lead us to believe that alterations in the relationship between subject and experimenter would have important consequences for obedience.
In another series of experiments we varied the physical closeness of the experimenter and the degree of surveillance he exercised. In Experiment 5 the experimenter sat just a few feet away from the subject. In Experiment 7, after giving initial instructions, the experimenter left the laboratory and gave his orders by telephone.
Obedience dropped sharply when the experimenter was physically removed from the laboratory. The number of obedient subjects in the first condition (26) was almost three times as great as in the second (9), in which the experimenter gave his orders by telephone. Subjects seemed able to resist the experimenter far better when they did not have to confront him face to face.
Table 3. Maximum Shocks Administered in experiments 5-11.
Moreover, when the experimenter was absent, subjects displayed an interesting form of behavior that had not occurred under his surveillance. Though continuing with the experiment, several subjects administered lower shocks than were required and never informed the experimenter of their deviation from the correct procedure. Indeed, in telephone conversations some subjects specifically assured the experimenter that they were raising the shock level according to instruction, while, in reality, they repeatedly used the lowest shock on the board. This form of behavior is particularly interesting: although these subjects acted in a way that clearly undermined the avowed purposes of the experiment, they found it easier to handle the conflict in this manner than to precipitate an open break with authority.
Other conditions were completed in which the experimenter was absent during the first segment of the experiment but reappeared shortly after the subject had refused to give higher shocks when commanded by telephone. Although he had exhausted his power via telephone, the experimenter could frequently force further obedience when he reappeared in the laboratory.
This series of experiments showed that the physical presence of an authority was an important force contributing to the subjectís obedience or defiance. Obedience to destructive commands was in some degree dependent on the proximal relations between authority and subject, and any theory of obedience must take account of this fact. 
In the experiments described thus far the subjects were adult males. Forty women were also studied. They are of particular theoretical interest because of two general sets of findings in social psychology. First, in most tests of compliance, women are more yielding than men (Weiss, 1969; Feinberg, mimeo). And thus in the present study they might have been expected to show more obedience. On the other hand, women are thought to be less aggressive and more empathic than men; thus their resistance to shocking the victim would also be higher. In principle, the two factors ought to work in opposite directions. The results are shown in Table 3. The level of obedience was virtually identical to the performance of men;  however, the level of conflict experienced by the women was on the whole higher than that felt by our male subjects. 
There were many specifically feminine styles in handling the conflict. In post experimental interviews women, far more frequently than men, related their experience to problems of rearing children.
The women were studied only in the role of teachers. It would be interesting to move them into other roles. As victims, they would most likely generate more disobedience, for cultural norms militate against hurting women even more strongly than hurting men. (Similarly, if a child were placed in the victimís role, disobedience would be much greater.)
It would be especially interesting to place women in the position of authority. Here it is unclear how male subjects and other women would respond to her. There is less experience with women bosses; on the other hand many men may want to show their toughness before a woman experimenter, by carrying out her callous orders without emotion. The accounts of three female subjects are given in Chapter 7.
Some subjects rely on the idea of an implicit social contract in explaining their own obedience. They reasoned thus: they had contracted with the experimenter to relinquish some of their freedom in the pursuit of a commonly held value -- advancement of knowledge. Moreover, they perceived a system of double consent to be at work: the victim also had entered into the contract with the experimental authority and was not free to renounce his obligations unilaterally. Moreover, the argument goes, the victim had entered into the authority system of the experimenter without placing any prior conditions on how he was to be treated. He must, therefore, accept the consequences of his own freely made decision. However unpleasant the experience might be for him, contractual obligations must be honored. Society is built on this presupposition.
This argument occurred with sufficient frequency to justify an empirical test. The idea was to alter the victimís mode of entry into the experiment, so that he did not, by implication or otherwise, consent to be shocked against his will.
Only a minor alteration in the procedure was required to achieve this. It is to be recalled that both putative subjects were informed of the nature of the learning experiment even before the learner was strapped into the electric chair and even before the first shock was administered. Following this, subjects signed a general release form, which stated: ďIn participating in this experimental research of my own free will, I release Yale University and its employees from any legal claims arising from my participation.Ē
Typically, this release was handled as a matter of routine, but in the present experiment, after the drawing is held and the experiment is outlined, the learner demurs. Hovering over the release form, pen in hand, he states that because of his heart condition he can agree to be in the experiment only on the condition that the experiment be halted on his demand. ďIíll agree to be in it, but only on condition that you let me out when I say so; thatís the only condition.Ē The experimenter, as well as the naive subject, clearly hear this precondition, and the experimenter grunts in a mildly positive manner. The learner signs the release and is strapped into the electric chair. The learner has thus predefined the limits of his cooperation. The experiment proceeds.
When the learner protests at 150 volts, the experimenter disregards him and instructs the naive subject to go on, as he had done in all previous conditions. An element of betrayal and patent injustice was thus introduced. The empirical question is whether it made a difference. Or is the ďcontractĒ argument merely a philosophic issue remote from the real forces at work in the situation?
About a quarter of the defiant subjects specifically raised the point that the victim had attached conditions to his participation, and they used this point as an argument for disobedience:
Subject: ďHe did say he wanted to be released if there was any trouble. I just canít listen to any more of that regardless of what you say about tissue damage.Ē (Disobedient at level 18)
Subject: ďWe should respect his wishes; he wants to be let out, so we have to. You said he could get out when he wanted to. I know Iíd want to be let out when I wanted to be.Ē (Disobedient at level 10)
Subject: ďI donít want to go on, I canít go on with this. Itís against my grain to inflict pain on somebody. This man may be in mortal danger as far as Iím concerned ... I feel there is this, too, namely, the man agreed only if he would be permitted to leave and he signed with this understanding. I feel in all fairness to him we shouldnít continue, his having signed it that way ...Ē (Disobedient at level 12)
The majority of defiant subjects, however, did not make explicit reference to the contract, though there is evidence in their heightened concern with the "legalitiesĒ of the experiment that they were aware of it. Consider the remarks of the following subject, a thirty-six-year-old salesman:
SUBJECT (195 volts administered): No, wait just a second. What is the liability involved here? Legal liability, Iím speaking of. I donít believe you do have the right to keep him in there if he doesnít want to continue.
EXPERIMENTER: Although the shocks may be painful, there is no permanent tissue damage.
SUBJECT: That isnít the answer. If the man doesnít want to go on, thatís his business.
EXPERIMENTER: The experiment requires that you continue.
SUBJECT: The experiment from Yaleís viewpoint, but not from a legal angle or his viewpoint. And in this case, Iím just as legally obligated as you are if any damage comes to the person ...
SUBJECT: (270 volts administered): No, I donít want any more of this .... I understand what youíre trying to do, but I also understand his rights.
(Subject breaks off.)
These comments should not obscure the over-all results of the experiment, which are shown in Table 3.
These findings show that the social contract doctrine is a feeble determinant of behavior. Sixteen of the 40 subjects continued to obey the experimenter to the end of the board, disregarding the contractual limitation the victim had attached to his participation. This is to be compared with the 20 subjects who continued to obey in the relevant control, condition 6. There is some increment in disobedience, but it could easily represent a chance variation. Subjects were aware of the injustice being done to the victim, but they allowed the experimenter to handle the issue as he saw it.
In psychophysics, animal learning, and other branches of psychology, the fact that measures are obtained at one institution rather than another is irrelevant to the interpretation of the findings, so long as the technical facilities for measurement are adequate and the operations are carried out with competence.
But it cannot be assumed that this holds true for the present study. The effectiveness of the experimenterís commands may depend on the institutional context in which they are issued. The experiments described thus far were conducted at Yale University, an organization which most subjects regarded with respect and sometimes awe. In post experimental interviews several participants remarked that the locale and sponsorship of the study gave them confidence in the integrity, competence, and benign purposes of the personnel; many indicated that they would not have shocked the learner if the experiments had been done elsewhere.
Fig. 10: Site of Bridgeport experiments (building to left of Austin's); Bridgeport site (interior).
The issue of background authority had to be considered in interpreting the results that had been obtained thus far; moreover, it is highly relevant to any theory of human obedience. Consider how closely our compliance with the imperatives of others is tied to particular institutions and locales in our day-to-day activities. On request, we expose our throats to a man with a razor blade in the barbershop, but would not do so in a shoe store; in the latter setting we willingly follow the clerkís request to stand in our stockinged feet, but resist the command in a bank. In the laboratory of a great university, subjects may comply with a set of commands that would be resisted if given elsewhere. One must always question the relationship of obedience to a personís sense of the context in which he is operating.
To explore the problem we moved our apparatus to an office building in a nearby industrial city, Bridgeport, and replicated experimental conditions without any visible tie to the university.
Bridgeport subjects were invited to the experiment through a mail circular similar to the one used in the Yale study, with appropriate changes in letterhead, etc. As in the earlier study, subjects were paid $4.50 for coming to the laboratory. The same age and occupational distributions used at Yale and the identical personnel were employed.
The purpose in relocating in Bridgeport was to assure a complete dissociation from Yale, and in this regard we were fully successful. On the surface, the study appeared to be conducted by Research Associates of Bridgeport, an organization of unknown character (the title had been concocted exclusively for use in this study).
The experiments were conducted in a three-room office suite in a somewhat rundown commercial building located in the downtown shopping area. The laboratory was sparsely furnished, though clean, and marginally respectable in appearance. When subjects inquired about professional affiliations, they were informed only that we were a private firm conducting research for industry.
Some subjects displayed skepticism concerning the motives of the Bridgeport experimenter. One man gave us a written account of the thoughts he experienced at the control board:
Should I quit this damn test? Maybe he passed out? What dopes we were not to check up on this deal. How do we know that these guys are legit? No furniture, bare walls, no telephone. We could of called the Police up or the Better Business Bureau. I learned a lesson tonight. How do I know that Mr. Williams [the experimenter] is telling the truth? ... I wish I knew how many volts a person could take before lapsing into unconsciousness.
Another subject stated:
I questioned on my arrival my own judgment [about coming]. I had doubts as to the legitimacy of the operation and the consequences of participation. I felt it was a heartless way to conduct memory or learning processes on human beings and certainly dangerous without the presence of a medical doctor.
There was no noticeable reduction in tension for the Bridgeport subjects. And the subjectsí estimation of the amount of pain felt by the victim was slightly, though not significantly, higher than in the Yale study.
A failure to obtain complete obedience in Bridgeport would indicate that the extreme compliance found in New Haven subjects was tied closely to the background authority of Yale University; if a large proportion of the subjects remained fully obedient, very different conclusions would be called for.
As it turned out, the level of obedience in Bridgeport, although somewhat reduced, was not significantly lower than that obtained at Yale. A large proportion of the Bridgeport subjects were fully obedient to the experimenterís commands (48 percent of the Bridgeport subjects delivered the maximum shock versus 65 percent in the corresponding condition at Yale), as Table 3 shows.
How are these findings to be interpreted? It is possible that if commands of a potentially harmful or destructive sort are to be perceived as legitimate they must occur within some sort of institutional structure. But it is clear from the study that it need not be a particularly reputable or distinguished institution. The Bridgeport experiments were conducted by an unimpressive firm lacking any credentials. The laboratory was set up in a respectable office building with its title listed in the building directory; otherwise there was no evidence of benevolence or competence. It is possible that the category of institution, judged according to its professed function, rather than its qualitative position within that category, wins our compliance. Persons deposit money in elegant, but also in seedy-looking banks, without giving much thought to the differences in security they offer. Similarly, our subjects may consider one laboratory to be as competent as another, so long as it is a scientific laboratory.
It would be valuable to pursue the investigation in contexts that go even further than the Bridgeport study in denying institutional support to the experimenter. It is possible that beyond a certain point obedience would disappear completely. But that point was not reached in the Bridgeport office: almost half the subjects obeyed the experimenter fully.
In the experiments described thus far the subject has acted in response to command, and we have assumed that the command is the effective cause of his action. But this conclusion is not warranted until we have performed a vital experimental control. For it is possible that the command is superfluous, that it simply corresponds to what the subject would do on his own.
Indeed, one theoretical interpretation of the behavior holds that men harbor deeply aggressive instincts continually pressing for expression and that the experiment provides institutional justification for the release of these impulses. According to this view, if a person is placed in a situation where he has complete power over another individual, whom he may punish as much as he likes, all that is sadistic and bestial in man comes to the fore. The impulse to shock the victim is seen to flow from the potent aggressive tendencies, which are part of the motivational life of the individual, and the experiment, because it provides social legitimation, simply opens the door to their expression.
It becomes vital, therefore, to compare the subjectsí performance when they are under orders and when they are allowed to choose the shock levels.
Fig. 11. Mean shock on each trial when subjects are free to choose
levels. (A critical trial refers to
The procedure was identical to that used in Experiment 5 except that the teacher was told that he was free to select any shock level on any of the trials. (The experimenter took pains to point out that the teacher could use the highest levels on the generator, the lowest, any in between, or any combination of levels.) Each subject proceeded for thirty critical trials. The learnerís protests were coordinated to standard shock levels, his first grunt coming at shock level 5, his first vehement protest at level 10. The results of the experiment are shown in Table 3.
The average (mean) shocks used across the thirty critical trials are shown in Figure 11, with an overall average of 3.6. (It is to be recalled that the victim indicated no signs of discomfort at all until shock level 5.) We may also consider the maximum shock delivered by each subject (even if he used it only once and at any point in his performance). Three subjects limited their shocks to the very lowest on the board, 28 went no higher than the first indication of discomfort, and 38 did not go beyond the point where the learner vehemently protested (shock level 10). Two subjects provided the exception, administering the 25th and the 30th shock levels. But the over-all result was that the great majority of subjects delivered the very lowest shocks to the victim when the choice was left up to them.
We must always keep this result in mind in interpreting the meaning of these experiments. It is not enough to say that the situation provided a setting in which it was acceptable for the subject to hurt another person. This setting remained the same in the present experiment, and, by and large, subjects were not inclined to have the victim suffer. Insofar as the experiments tell us something about human nature, the revelation on how men act toward others when they are on their own is here. Whatever leads to shocking the victim at the highest level cannot be explained by autonomously generated aggression but needs to be explained by the transformation of behavior that comes about through obedience to orders.